Wednesday, August 19, 2009


In the late 1970’s, the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) hosted an annual Toward Tomorrow Fair, a showcase for what was then called “appropriate technology.” I vividly remember the poster advertising the fair. It depicted a small city in a campus-like setting, with windmills, solar panels, passive solar architecture, bicycles, monorails, and all manner of farms, gardens, and orchards. Imagine a college campus with a similar landscape—buildings displaying a full range of renewable energy resources, creating a uniquely educational energy architecture. Each building serves as a model for conservation efficiency, ecological design, and interactive learning, powered by an innovative renewable energy source.

Energy refers to the transformation of matter to produce heat and electricity. The point of sustainable energy practices is to maximize the efficiency of those processes so as to minimize unwanted byproducts. We require a new energy algorithm that enables us to heat and cool our buildings, move people and their goods from one place to another, and power our machines, without simultaneously altering the biosphere.

For colleges and universities a primary challenge is how to approach zero-carbon energy use. This can be accomplished through a combination of ingenious technical innovations, renewable energy sources, and rigorous conservation/retrofitting. It’s essential that these efforts are fully transparent so that all energy users understand the flow from source to destination to byproduct, or what is typically described as life cycle analysis.

Energy cost accounting, the foundation of a truthful ecological economics, should be built into all budgetary approaches, incorporating not only the short and long term campus dollars and cents (sense) but also the ecological and climatic ramifications of such decisions. On a more tangible level we can link the magnitude of energy choices to the scale of daily behaviors. How does turning on a switch or turning up the thermostat impact both the traditional budgetary spreadsheet, but also the planetary carbon budget? I can think of no better educational project than outfitting all campus buildings with the capacity to monitor such choices by calibrating all of the necessary equivalencies and ratios. Campuses can become monitoring cooperatives, defined by the ubiquity and transparency of their energy networking systems.

Energy structures serve as instructional landmarks on the campus landscape. Windmills, solar panels, and geothermal installations all require interpretive displays that help campus users better understand the complexity of energy choices, while allowing our students to develop new habits of thinking about their energy use.

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